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PAST AND PRESENTISM: THE ‘PRECOLONIAL’ AND THE FORESHORTENING OF AFRICAN HISTORY*

  • RICHARD REID (a1)
Abstract
ABSTRACT

This article considers the marginalization of precolonial history from mainstream Africanist scholarship in recent decades, and argues that this can be understood in the context of a scholarly culture that attributes an exaggerated significance to the history of the twentieth century. The article highlights some of the work that continues to be done on Africa's deeper past, with a view to demonstrating the enormous value of such research in elucidating present-day issues. It also argues, however, that work on the modern period is preponderant, and that there is a clear tendency toward historical foreshortening, evidenced in recent scholarship on such topics as conflict and ethnicity.

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*Author's email: rr15@soas.ac.uk
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1 R. Oliver, In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History (Madison, 1997), 363.

2 J. Vansina, Living with Africa (Madison, 1994), 205.

3 See also Schoenbrun D., ‘Conjuring the modern in Africa: durability and rupture in histories of public healing between the Great Lakes of East Africa’, American Historical Review, 111:5 (2006), 1403–39.

4 G. Connah, African Civilisations: Pre-colonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: An Archaeological Perspective (Cambridge, 2001); A. B. Stahl (ed.), African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction (Oxford, 2005); D. Phillipson, African Archaeology (Cambridge, 2005); L. Barham and P. Mitchell, The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers (Cambridge, 2008).

5 R. J. McIntosh, Peoples of the Middle Niger (Oxford, 1998); M. Horton, Shanga: The Archaeology of a Muslim Trading Community on the Coast of East Africa (London, 1996); M. Horton, The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society (Oxford, 2000).

6 C. R. DeCorse and G. L. Chouin, ‘Trouble with siblings: archaeological and historical interpretation of the West African past’, in T. Falola and C. Jennings (eds.), Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed (Rochester, NY, 2003), 10–11.

7 LaViolette A. and Fleisher J., ‘The urban history of a rural place: Swahili archaeology on Pemba Island, Tanzania, 700–1500 ad’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 42:3 (2009), 433–56.

8 Stahl A. B. and LaViolette A., ‘Introduction: current trends in the archaeology of African history’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 42:3 (2009), 374.

9 Ibid.

10 Norman N. L., ‘Hueda (Whydah) country and town: archaeological perspectives on the rise and collapse of an African Atlantic kingdom’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 42:3 (2009), 387410.

11 Ogundiran A., ‘Material life and domestic economy in a frontier of the Oyo empire during the mid-Atlantic age’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 42:3 (2009), 351–86.

12 C. R. DeCorse, An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the Gold Coast, 1400–1900 (Washington, DC, 2001). See also G. Chouin and DeCorse C. R., ‘Prelude to the Atlantic trade: new perspectives on southern Ghana's pre-Atlantic history (800–1500)’, Journal of African History, 51:2 (2010), 123–45.

13 N. Swanepoel, A. Esterhuysen, and P. Bonner (eds.), Five Hundred Years Rediscovered: Southern African Precedents and Prospects (Johannesburg, 2009).

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18 See Y. Libsekal, ‘Eritrea’, in International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS): World Report 2001–02 on Monuments and Sites in Danger (Paris, 2002), http://www.international.icomos.org/risk/2001/erit2001.htm (accessed 10 April 2011).

19 J. Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (London, 1990); Vansina J., ‘New linguistic evidence and “the Bantu Expansion”’, Journal of African History, 36:2 (1995), 173–95; J. Vansina, How Societies are Born: Governance in West Central Africa Before 1600 (Charlottesville and London, 2004); Nurse D., ‘The contribution of linguistics to the study of history in Africa’, Journal of African History, 38:3 (1997), 359–91.

20 D. L. Schoenbrun, A Green Place, a Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century (Oxford, 1998); see also D. L. Schoenbrun, The Historical Reconstruction of Great Lakes Bantu Cultural Vocabulary: Etymologies and Distributions (Cologne, 1997).

21 R. Stephens, ‘A history of motherhood, food procurement and politics in east-central Uganda to the nineteenth century’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Northwestern University, 2007); also Stephens R., ‘Lineage and society in pre-colonial Uganda’, Journal of African History, 50:2 (2009), 203–21.

22 J. B. Shetler, Imagining Serengeti: A History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present (Athens, OH, 2007), 24.

23 For example, Bostoen K., ‘Pots, words and the Bantu problem: on lexical reconstruction and early African history’, Journal of African History, 48:2 (2007), 173–99; Fields-Black E. L., ‘Untangling the many roots of West African mangrove rice farming: rice technology in the Rio Nunez region, earliest times to c.1800’, Journal of African History, 49:1 (2008), 122; K. A. Klieman, ‘The Pygmies were our Compass’: Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c.1900 (Portsmouth, NH, 2003).

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25 Recently, for example, see S. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge MA, 2007); and, over a rather longer durée, the work of Joseph Miller.

26 R. C. C. Law, Ouidah: The Social History of a West African slaving ‘port’, 1727–1892 (Oxford, 2004). Important articles by Lovejoy and Richardson are ‘Trust, pawnship and Atlantic history: the institutional foundations of the Old Calabar slave trade’, American Historical Review, 102 (1999), 332–55; The business of slaving: pawnship in western Africa, c.1600–1810’, Journal of African History, 42:1 (2001), 6789; and “This horrid hole”: royal authority, commerce and credit at Bonny, 1690–1840’, Journal of African History, 45:3 (2004), 363–92. Several articles in Journal of African History, 42:1 (2001) dealt with the slave trade and ‘decentralized’ societies.

27 R. C. C. Law (ed.), From Slave Trade to ‘Legitimate’ Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth-century West Africa (Cambridge, 1995).

28 M. Lynn, Commerce and Economic Change in West Africa: The Palm Oil Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1997).

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30 For example, D. Acemoglu, S. Johnson, and Robinson J., ‘Reversal of fortune: geography and institutions in the making of the modern world income distribution’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117:4 (2002), 1231–94.

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32 Austin G., ‘The “reversal of fortune” thesis and the compression of history: perspectives from African and comparative history’, Journal of International Development, 20 (2008), 9961027.

33 Austin G., ‘Resources, techniques, and strategies south of the Sahara: revising the factor endowments perspective on Africa economic development, 1500–2000’, Economic History Review, 61:3 (2008), 587.

34 J.-G. Deutsch, Emancipation Without Abolition in German East Africa, c.1884–1914 (Oxford, 2006); H. Médard and S. Doyle (eds.), Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa (Oxford, 2007).

35 S. Rockel, Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-century East Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 2006).

36 J. Miran, Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009).

37 G. Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks and Cross-cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-century Western Africa (Cambridge, 2009).

38 J.-F. Bayart, L'état en Afrique: la politique du ventre (Paris, 1989), translated as The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London, 1993). See also his ‘Africa in the world: a history of extraversion’, African Affairs, 99:395 (2000), 217–67.

39 H. Hanson, Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda (Portsmouth, NH, 2003).

40 H. Medard, Le Royaume du Buganda au XIXe siècle (Paris, 2007).

41 N. Kodesh, Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda (Charlottesville, 2010).

42 R. J. Reid, Political Power in Pre-colonial Buganda: Economy, Society and Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2002).

43 T. C. McCaskie, State and Society in Pre-colonial Asante (Cambridge, 1995).

44 Wilks I., ‘Asante state and society’, Journal of African History, 37:1 (1996), 138–40.

45 See C. Hamilton (ed.), The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History (Johannesburg, 1995).

46 C. Hamilton, Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention (Cape Town, 1998).

47 D. Wylie, Myth of Iron: Shaka in History (Scottsville, 2006).

48 B. Carton, J. Laband and J. Sithole (eds.), Zulu Identities: Being Zulu, Past and Present (Pietermaritzburg, 2008).

49 C. Hamilton, B. K. Mbenga and R. Ross (eds.), The Cambridge History of South Africa, Vol. 1: From Early Times to 1885 (Cambridge, 2010).

50 J.-P. Chretien, L'Afrique des grands lacs: deux milles ans d'histoire (Paris, 2000), translated as The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History (New York, 2003); R. Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (Philadelphia, 2009).

51 D. Newbury, The Land Beyond the Mists: Essays on Identity and Authority in Pre-colonial Congo and Rwanda (Athens, OH, 2009); J. Vansina, Le Rwanda ancien: le royaume nyiginya (Paris, 2001), translated as Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom (Madison, 2004).

52 See D. Schoenbrun's review of Vansina, Antecedents, in Africa Today, 52:4 (2006), 146–9.

53 D. M. Anderson and R. Rathbone (eds.), Africa's Urban Past (Oxford, 2000); A. Burton (ed.), The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa, c.1750–2000 (Nairobi, 2002).

54 See Anderson D. M. and Rathbone R., ‘Urban Africa: histories in the making’, in Anderson and Rathbone, Africa's Urban Past, 117.

55 D. Crummey, Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia: From the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Oxford, 2000), 259.

56 J. C. McCann, People of the Plow: An Agricultural History of Ethiopia, 1800–1990 (Madison, 1995).

57 S. Doyle, Crisis and Decline in Bunyoro: Population and Environment in Western Uganda 1860–1955 (Oxford, 2006).

58 Anxieties about the encroachment of presentism on the discipline of history have been expressed in other quarters in recent years: see, for example, J. C. D. Clark, Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History (London, 2003), 5–9.

59 L. V. Cassanelli, The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600–1900 (Philadelphia, 1982); D. Nurse and T. Spear, The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society 800–1500 (Philadelphia, 1985); R. R. Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: The Origins of the Acholi of Uganda Before 1800 (Philadelphia, 1994).

60 Atkinson, Roots, xiii.

61 J.-P. Chretien and G. Prunier (eds.), Les ethnies ont une histoire (Paris, 1989).

62 J. Iliffe, A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge, 1979), 323.

63 See also C. Young, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective (New Haven and London, 1994), 232ff.

64 T. Spear and R. Waller (eds.), Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa (Oxford, 1993).

65 J. Markakis, ‘Ethnic conflict and the state in the Horn of Africa’, in K. Fukui and J. Markakis (eds.), Ethnicity and Conflict in the Horn of Africa (London, 1994), 217–37.

66 Young, African Colonial State, 234.

67 F. Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley, 2005), 79–80.

68 T. Ranger, ‘The invention of tradition in colonial Africa’, in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), 211–62.

69 T. Ranger, ‘The invention of tradition revisited: the case of Africa’, in T. Ranger and O. Vaughan (eds.), Legitimacy and the State in Twentieth-century Africa (London, 1993), 62–111.

70 M. Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, 1996), 185.

71 P. Chabal and J.-P. Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Oxford, 1999), 57.

72 Spear T., ‘Neo-traditionalism and the limits of invention in British colonial Africa’, Journal of African History, 44:1 (2003), 16ff; and again see Schoenbrun, ‘Conjuring the modern’.

73 Lack of space prevents an extensive survey, but see A. Smith The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford, 1986); and A. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation (Oxford, 1999).

74 J. Lamphear (ed.), African Military History (Aldershot, 2007).

75 M. W. Daly, Darfur's Sorrow: A History of Destruction and Genocide (Cambridge, 2007); R. O. Collins, A History of Modern Sudan (Cambridge, 2008).

76 J. Thornton, Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800 (London, 1999), 3; R. J. Reid, War in Pre-colonial Eastern Africa: The Patterns and Meanings of State-level Conflict in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2007), 9–10.

77 For example, J. F. Ade Ajayi and R. Smith, Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (Ibadan and Cambridge, 1971); B. A. Ogot (ed.), War and Society in Africa (London, 1972); Uzoigwe G. N., ‘Pre-colonial military studies in Africa’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 13:3 (1975), 469–81; R. Law C. C., ‘Horses, firearms, and political power in pre-colonial West Africa’, Past & Present, 72 (1976), 112–32; A. A. Mazrui (ed.), The Warrior Tradition in Modern Africa (Leiden, 1977); Kaba L., ‘Archers, musketeers, and mosquitoes: the Moroccan invasion of the Sudan and the Songhay resistance (1591–1612)’, Journal of African History, 22:4 (1981), 457–75; Thornton J., ‘The art of war in Angola, 1575–1680’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 30 (1988), 360–78; Hamilton C., ‘“The character and objects of Chaka”: a reconsideration of the making of Shakaa as “Mfecane” motor’, Journal of African History, 33:1 (1992), 3763; J. Lamphear, ‘Brothers in arms: military aspects of East African age–class systems in historical perspective’, in E. Kurimoto and S. Simonse (eds.), Conflict, Age and Power in North East Africa (Oxford, 1998), 79–97.

78 R. S. Smith, Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-colonial West Africa (London, 1989).

79 Thornton, Warfare; Reid, War; R. J. Reid, Frontiers of Violence in Northeast Africa: Genealogies of Conflict Since 1800 (Oxford, 2011).

80 See for example J. Keegan, A History of Warfare (London, 1993); R. D. Kaplan, ‘The coming anarchy’, Atlantic Monthly, February 1994, 44–76.

81 A representative sample might include C. Clapham (ed.), African Guerrillas (Oxford, 1998); W. Reno, Warlord Politics and African States (Boulder, 1998); M. Boas and K. C. Dunn (eds.), African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Machine (Boulder, 2007); P. Richards (ed.), No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts (Oxford, 2005); P. Kaarsholm (ed.), Violence, Political Culture and Development in Africa (Oxford, 2006); B. Derman, R. Odgaard, and E. Sjaastad (eds.), Conflicts Over Land and Water in Africa (Oxford, 2007); A. Nhema and P. Tiyambe Zeleza (eds.), The Roots of African Conflicts: The Causes and Costs (Oxford and Addis Ababa, 2008); A. Nhema and P. Tiyambe Zeleza (eds.), The Resolution of African Conflicts: The Management of Conflict Resolution and Post-conflict Reconstruction (Oxford, 2008); T. M. Ali and R. O. Matthews (eds.), Civil Wars in Africa: Roots and Resolution (Montreal and Kingston, 1999).

82 B. Barry, La Senegambie du XVe au XIXe siecle: traite négriére, Islam et conquete coloniale (Paris, 1988), translated as Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge, 1998); P. M. Larson, Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora (Cambridge, 2009).

83 J. and J. Comaroff (eds.), Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa (Chicago, 1993); Schoenbrun, ‘Conjuring the modern’.

84 Again, see Bayart, The State in Africa.

85 In recent years, there have been a number of publications exploring the methodologies and sources available to researchers: see T. Falola and C. Jennings (eds.), Africanizing Knowledge: African Studies Across the Disciplines (New Brunswick, 2002); Falola and Jennings, Sources and Methods; J. E. Philips (ed.), Writing African History (Rochester, 2005).

86 C. C. Wrigley, Kingship and State: The Buganda Dynasty (Cambridge, 1996); B. Zewde, Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2002); D. Peterson and G. Macola (eds.), Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens, OH, 2009).

87 See the work of Molefi K. Asante, notably The History of Africa: The Quest for Harmony (London, 2007); and, for a wide-ranging critique of the phenomenon, S. Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London, 1998).

88 Recent examples of journalistic output include G. Arnold, Africa: A Modern History (London, 2005); M. Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (London, 2005); R. Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (London, 2008).

89 P. Marsden, The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy (London, 2007).

90 S. David, Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (London, 2004).

91 W. B. Bartlett, Zulu: Queen Victoria's Most Famous Little War (London, 2010); M. Snook, How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed (London, 2010); M. Snook, Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift (London, 2010); I. Knight, Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift (London, 2010).

92 J. H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (London, 1973), 49.

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